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Japan Blog: Hitting The Road


I’ll Have Another at Big Red Farm | Kelsey Riley

By Kelsey Riley

Earlier this week, I spent two days reporting on the Japan Racing Horse Association’s Select Sale of yearlings and foals on the island of Hokkaido, Japan. My first visit to Japan began over the weekend with visits to the Yoshida family’s Shadai Farm, Northern Farm and Shadai Stallion Station, and wrapped up with the sales at the Northern Horse Park on Monday and Tuesday. In those first few days I found every encounter to be first-class, from the horsemanship to the hospitality of the Japanese people. So come Wednesday, I was looking forward to getting out on the road and seeing what else the Hokkaido horse industry had to offer.

First, some geography. Hokkaido is Japan’s northern-most island, and measures 32,221 square miles. It has a population of just over 5.5-million (humans), and is home to the vast majority of Japan’s 9,371 broodmares and 218 stallions (2015 numbers), and it is where most of the 6,582 Japanese foal crop was born last year. In other words, it is the Newmarket/Lexington/Hunter Valley, etc., of Japan.

I was lucky enough to have the driving services of Regent’s Mariko Seki for the day, and the first stop took us about an hour out of the small town of Chitose into Tomikawa, where we were greeted at Darley Japan by Harry Sweeney, president of that operation as well as Paca Paca Farm; Stud Director Willie Brogan; Yui Torigoe of nominations and research; and Marketing Executive Yuko Aoyama.

Darley’s Japanese satellite was established in 2002, with Sheikh Mohammed being one of the first foreign owners to receive a Japan Racing Association owners license (more on that in a minute). Sheikh Mohammed was the leading ‘private owner’ (ie., not racing horses are part of a partnership) of the JRA in 2015, and he was the fourth-leading breeder on the JRA circuit behind the Shadai groups. Sweeney explained that seeing Japanese horses plunder races on the rich Dubai World Cup card with increasing frequency has fueled Sheikh Mohammed’s interest in racing in the country. A Darley pre-training centre is currently being developed, and Sheikh Mohammed hopes to put 100 horses into training in the country each year.

Darley Japan stands five stallions, and the team was kind enough to show us the accomplished veteran King’s Best (Kingmambo); 2012 G1 Dubai World Cup winner Monterosso (GB) (Dubawi {Ire}), who has his first yearlings this year; and American Grade I winner Pyro (Pulpit), who–excuse the pun–has been on fire lately.

Pyro’s eldest crop are five, but a strong start to 2016 saw him cover his biggest-ever book this year of about 185 mares. Pyro– who stands for $25,000–had four JRA winners last weekend. Pyro has had a group winner on the turf this year, but is also the country’s second-highest ranked dirt sire by Average Earnings Index.

Alright, back to the JRA: Japan has two racing circuits, the rich and highly coveted JRA circuit and the National Association of Racing (NAR circuit), both of which are regulated by the government, the JRA being a subsidiary of the department of agriculture. The JRA boasts the best purses in the world, the average purse being more than $290,000. Thus, it is understandable why every racehorse owner would want to participate in the JRA. Non-Japanese nationals wanting to race horses in the JRA have to go through an arduous vetting process, but an increasing number are taking the plunge as Japanese-breds continue to take the world by storm. One of those is Australian Robert Anderson, who was approved for his license just a week ago and bought a yearling filly at the JRHA sale on Monday. And that list could grow after the Canadian-based Charles Fipke expressed his desire to obtain a JRA license after signing for his first Japanese-bred horse on Monday.

Alright, back to the road trip. After an enjoyable couple of hours at Darley we jumped in the car and headed South East to Koji Maeda’s North Hills Farm. Maeda has been a prominent owner in Japan for some time but has gained international acclaim this year as the man behind media darling Lani (Tapit), the horse everyone couldn’t help but love for largely outrunning his odds, and his own antics, in this year’s American Triple Crown. I won’t go into any more detail on North Hills right now; you’ll have to watch this space next week for more on Maeda and his plans for Lani.

The final stop of the day was Big Red Farm, the home of 2012 GI Kentucky Derby and GI Preakness S. winner I’ll Have Another (Flower Alley). This journey took us on a scenic drive along the coast of the part of the Pacific Ocean that separates Hokkaido from mainland Japan. Turning back inland, we arrived in the town of Niikappu and headed up the ‘Thoroughbred Ginza,’ a stretch of two-lane road that is bordered on both sides by Thoroughbred farms. The word ‘Ginza’ is taken from the name of Tokyo’s world-famous shopping district, where shops, restaurants, theatres and galleries line the streets–Ginza is said to be the Oxford Street or Fifth Avenue of Tokyo.

Big Red Farm is a 370-hectare facility that includes a stallion station and a state-of-the-art training centre, but Wednesday’s visit focused on the stallions. First out was I’ll Have Another, who has his first 2-year-olds running this year. He has had one winner from 20 starters, but Farm Manager Ebina Satoru said that number also includes a handful of placed horses.

“His number of placed horses is improving, so he’ll do ok,” Satoru said. “They won’t be precocious types.”

Satoru noted that I’ll Have Another has remained popular in his first four seasons. He covered over 150 mares his first year and over 120 the last three years. Saturo said the chestnut still gets plenty of attention from his fans, too.

“He has lots of fans,” he said. “We get many inquiries from the U.S. about him, so we try to post photos of him on Facebook about once a month.”

Big Red Farm is also very friendly to its local fans. The farm is always open to visitors, who are allowed to tour the grounds freely. Satoru noted that feature has become especially popular since the arrival of its newest sire, the six-time Group 1 winner Gold Ship (Jpn) (Stay Gold {Jpn}). The now 7-year-old Gold Ship performed at his peak until his final season on the track, winning last year’s G1 Tenno Sho Autumn, and the grey was always a fan favourite, no doubt helped by his typical theatrics heading to post. While Gold Ship was more than a handful on the track, Satoru said he has completely calmed down since going to stud, and that certainly seemed true as the lanky grey stood quietly for photos. Satoru said about 30 people come a week to see Gold Ship, but that number swelled to 1000 during this year’s appropriately named ‘Golden Week,’ the period between the end of April and first week of May where four public holidays occur within seven days in Japan. Some fans also leave ‘good luck charms’ on the stall doors of the horses, and Gold Ship had collected at least 12, well outnumbering the other stallions.

With an action-packed and highly educational week in Hokkaido in the books, I jetted back to Tokyo on Thursday morning. Thanks to the organization by Winchester Farm’s Dr. Naoya Yoshida (down to typing out directions in Japanese for my taxi driver, to ensure I ended up where I wanted to be!), I spent the morning at Miho Training Center with JRA veterinarian Dr. Kanichi Kusano and Darley Japan’s Madoka Kamei. Miho is one of two JRA training centres–the other is Ritto Training Centre, and all JRA horses must be raced out of one of those centres. The facilities at Miho Training Centre certainly stand among the best in the world.

JRA-licensed trainers are allotted 20 stalls at a JRA training centre (Miho can hold about 2000 horses), and they use those spaces for their horses that are closest to racing, with other members of their string being prepared at outside facilities. Horses are required to be on a JRA facility 10 days before a race (15 days for 2-year-olds), and once they step onto the facilities their records are closely monitored. The JRA employs 27 vets that work between the racecourses and the training centres, including Kusano. Raceday medication is prohibited in Japan and Kusano explained that prohibited substances are highly guarded. If needed, they must be signed out by a JRA veterinarian and entered into a horse’s records, which will automatically make that horse ineligible to race for the duration of the clearance period of the drug in question.

Another way that JRA owners are protected by the organization is through subsidies for the treatment of certain injuries or illnesses that occur on a JRA property. Kusano explained that the JRA will cover 80% of the cost of a colic surgery, and owners are compensated ¥3-million (about $28,000 by today’s exchange rate) for the treatment of a fracture. Miho has an expansive on-site veterinary clinic where surgeries are performed.

There are three training tracks at Miho: a dirt (more like sand) surface; a strip split between synthetic and turf; and an 800-metre uphill woodchip gallop, where works can be electronically timed. Kusano explained that the surface is constantly being re-evaluated with trainer feedback taken into consideration, and he said it took about four years to get it to where it is today.

Japanese trainers also tend to swim their horses a few days a week, and Miho offers both a straight and round pool. The straight pool has an underground observation deck where the trainer can evaluate the stride of the horse while it swims.

Half the battle of having a horse race-ready is keeping its mind in as good of shape as its body, and for that purpose Miho has designed a ‘walking area’ that somewhat mimics the forests of Chantilly. The horses can be taken for walks through the wooded area while bird-chirping soundtracks are played on speakers placed along the paths, and they will also be periodically be misted by sprinklers assembled throughout and designed to keep them cool during the hot and humid summer. Miho also has jumps that some trainers take advantage of if their horses need a change of pace.

With my Japanese tour having come to an end, I can say that it was world-class in every way, from the quality of the horses and horsemanship, to the hospitality of the people, and not least the food! It was such a pleasure to get so much insight into an industry that is quickly becoming a global superpower, and I am already looking forward to returning.


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